The line between fiction and non-fiction is usually a obvious one in literature. Unless the non-fiction in question is written as a literary story, the difference lies in the presentation and advertisement of the work. Non-fiction can be presented as a memoir, journal, essay, selection of interviews, or more. The books usually have very long, very descriptive titles. Fiction, on the other hand, is something you immediately know when you see it. At least it is now. Once upon a time, the lines were much more blurred. Books like Gulliver’s Travels or Utopia were believed to be true by some when they were published. Nowadays, it can be popular to present fiction as non-fiction, as seen in the mockumentary style of film. It is about presenting the material as realistically and believably as possible, no matter how absurd the material may be.
Enter Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, an author who helped redefine this style of presenting fiction as fact. His first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, published in 2003, is presented as a legitimate survival manual for dealing with the potential zombie outbreak. Alongside strategies for average citizens to outwit the zombie hordes, it also presents “real” cases of zombie outbreaks from around the world and how they were dealt with. Brooks approaches the overblown zombie genre with an eye for practicality and avoiding the usual tropes as seen in fiction. Three years later, he built upon the original premise and published World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Inserting himself into the narrative, a fictional Max Brooks is an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission, collecting stories from survivors of a now-over zombie plague. The book is told in a series of vignettes, each presented by a unique character from a difference part of the world. Brooks’ newest novel, however, is a break away from his most-well known subject.
Like World War Z before it, Brooks inserts himself into Devolution as a documentarian who is presenting a real account of a Bigfoot sighting turned deadly. However, just based on the subtitle alone, A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, it is not immediately apparent who is getting massacred and doing the massacring. There is an element of mystery at the beginning as Brooks describes how this tale will be presented. The fictional version of the author was sent an article about a Sasquatch attacking a small town, as well as the journal of Kate Holland, a witness to the events. The vast majority of the novel is actually Kate’s journal, beginning with her first day in the town of Greenloop and ending after the explosive climax. Interspersed with her journal entries are excerpts from two interviews the fictional Brooks conducted with characters connected to the case. Kat Holland’s brother, Frank McCray, and Senior Ranger Josephine Schell from the National Park Service. Unlike World War Z, Devolution takes place on a much smaller scale, and only alternates between these three characters.
While the book opens with an introduction by the fictionalized Brooks, Kate Holland is indisputably the main character of Devolution. The vast majority of the text is occupied by her journal, beginning with the first entry and going through to entry seventeen. The actual time covered is only slightly more than seventeen days as Kate chronicles almost every evening after the events of the day. By the time Brooks receives the journal and conducts his interviews, several weeks to months have passed. At the start of the journal, when Kate first moves to Greenloop with her husband Dan, she is a bundle of frayed nerves. Coming from busy Los Angeles to a small town located in rural Washington, the move was designed to help her and Dan de-stress and find a healthier way of living. Her journal entries actually start formatted as letters to her therapist. She is a believable, realistic character trying to cope with a life she did not really want, and a husband who has changed after failing to enter the tech industry. She is normal. However, as the book progresses as the town encounters a violent Sasquatch, Kate does begin to change. Her change is as gradual as it is practical. It becomes clear that much of her anxieties stemmed from a life she could not control. But, as she gains more control over herself, her confidence grows, until the Kate at the end does not even resemble the Kate at the beginning.
While the book is ostensibly a story about one town’s encounter with Sasquatch and the violent conflict they enter into to ensure their own survival, Brooks has unintentionally created a metaphor about the current COVID-19 pandemic raging through the United States. It is clear that Brooks wrote the book during the Trump presidency but, based on the timing of the release, it is unlikely he meant for the coronavirus to have such a large parallel with the story he wanted to tell. In the case of Devolution, rather than a virus, the national tragedy is the volcanic eruption of Mr. Rainier in Washington. References are made to an incompetent president, slow to act or throw the required resources at the problem, along with defunded programs and services which were sorely needed. Interviews with the park ranger reveal just how much of a mess the official response to the eruption was, just like the US government’s response, or lack thereof, to the current pandemic. In the end, Devolution becomes a very on-the-nose metaphor about the coronavirus, even echoing how the deaths were completely avoidable. Like many of the people exposed to the virus, the residents of Greenloop were considered “low risk.” However, death came for them all the same.
In any other year, Devolution would have more enjoyable than it ends up being. It is unfortunately overshadowed by current events that Brooks could not have predicted or accounted for. He set up to use a national tragedy as the backdrop of the book, and there was no way he could have known that a large-scale national tragedy would sweep the country in the months leading up to, and following, the publication of his novel. The coronavirus is everywhere in our culture right now, and the exhaustion of completely being exposed to stories about it is a real issue. At the end of my reviews, I list how many days it took to finish a book. Devolution should have been a faster read than it ended up being, in part because of COVID-19. The book also suffers from a restricted scale when compared to its predecessor. As the majority is presented through the lens of Kate Holland, she has to carry the narrative. As great as a character as she is, a little variety and breaking up the point-of-view could have helped keep momentum. As it stands, the book is slightly longer than it needs to be.
Many of the issues I found with Devolution are not the fault of the author. Rather, he is a victim of bad timing. Either a year earlier or a year later, and this book had the potential to be just as memorable as his previous work. As always, Brooks shows his talent is thinking through a fantastical plot device, the Sasquatch, and presenting it in a realistic and believable way. If you enjoyed his other books, and have energy left-over from the constant onslaught of coronavirus news, then you might enjoy Devolution.
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 16 days
Next on the List: The Tower of Fools, by Andrzej Sapkowski